idaho history football game

By: Tom Scott

It was early 1997, and the Big West Conference was without a guaranteed bowl game for its football champion.  With Las Vegas having essentially become a Western Athletic Conference city the year before with the move of UNLV to the WAC, the bowl had elected to follow suit and switch its affiliation from the Big West to the Rebels’ new league to maintain local interest in the event.

Were there any volunteers to come to the aid of the Big West?  Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier raised his hand.  What about creating a unique bowl game at a cold-weather site, one that had embraced football at all levels for decades?  The idea germinated with the support of Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell, and on June 12, 1997, the new bowl received official certification from the NCAA.

The event would be named the Humanitarian Bowl in a partnership with Boise’s World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.  The initial agreement paired the Big West champion with a representative from Conference USA.  In a day of fewer bowls and more flexible selection processes, there was competition for the C-USA berth.  Cincinnati, with a promise of healthy ticket sales and a future visit to Boise State by its nationally-ranked men’s basketball team, earned the bid opposite Utah State.

The inaugural Humanitarian Bowl was played on December 29, 1997, in front of 16,289 fans on Bronco Stadium’s blue turf.  It was considered a good crowd at the time, given USU coach John L. Smith’s lame-duck status.  Smith was on his way to Louisville, and the Aggies’ fan base was less than motivated.  Cincinnati was inspired, though, and the Bearcats took home a 35-19 victory.

The 1998 Humanitarian Bowl pitted Idaho against Southern Miss and provided a glimpse into the bowl’s high-scoring future.  The Vandals and Golden Eagles put on an offensive show before Idaho prevailed, 42-35.  With a title sponsor aboard for the first time, Boise State made its first-ever bowl game in the 1999 Crucial.com Humanitarian Bowl, another back-and-forth affair that saw the Broncos squeeze out a 34-31 win over the John L. Smith-coached Cardinals.

In 2000, the final season of Big West football, the Crucial.com Humanitarian Bowl transitioned to a Western Athletic Conference opponent.  Boise State returned as Big West champion and, in Dirk Koetter’s final game as Broncos coach, topped UTEP 38-23.  An eight-year association with the Atlantic Coast Conference began in 2001, when Tommy Bowden’s Clemson Tigers rolled up a 49-24 victory over WAC winner Louisiana Tech.

The 2002 Crucial.com Humanitarian Bowl marked the return of Boise State, which wrapped up a 12-1 season with a 34-16 triumph over Seneca Wallace and Iowa State, filling the bowl’s ACC slot.  The Broncos’ Brock Forsey notched three touchdowns to finish his senior year as the nation’s leading scorer.  The 2003 game was actually played January 3, 2004, sandwiched in between BCS bowl games.  Georgia Tech’s P.J. Daniels rushed for a bowl record 307 yards in a 52-10 conquest of Tulsa.

The game secured a new title sponsor in 2004 and was renamed the MPC Computers Bowl.  Under that moniker, the bowl went 3-for-3 in thrillers, beginning with the first overtime in the game’s history as Fresno State edged Virginia, 37-34.  In 2005, Matt Ryan and Boston College scored the first 27 points of the game before holding off Boise State, 27-21, a year before the Broncos’ famous Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma.  The 2006 MPC Computers Bowl brought Nevada to the blue turf to play Miami in Larry Coker’s final game as head coach of the Hurricanes.  And again, the ‘Canes had to fend off a last-minute Wolf Pack surge to prevail, 21-20.

In 2007, the bowl returned to its roots with a new sponsor, Roady’s Truck Stops, and the Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl saw Fresno State beat Georgia Tech, 40-28.  Nevada was back in the game in 2008, but Maryland repelled a Colin Kaepernick-led comeback by the Wolf Pack and won, 42-35.

The 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl was one for the ages.  Idaho and Bowling Green, the first Mid-American Conference representative to play in the game, took turns putting the pedal to the metal.  Through a flurry of momentum shifts, the Falcons took a 42-35 lead with 32 seconds remaining in the game.  But the Vandals drove 66 yards in three plays and scored with four seconds left.  Idaho decided to go for two points, and Nate Enderle converted with a pass to Preston Davis to win it, 43-42.

A sister company of Roady’s, uDrove, took title sponsorship in 2010, when Northern Illinois handed Fresno State a 40-17 setback.  Then a funny thing happened on the way to the 2011 game.  The Idaho Potato Commission emerged with a commitment as a long-term sponsor, giving the bowl its new identity, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.  Hear the name, and you know exactly what it is and where it is.  And what it was in 2011 was a classic.  Utah State led the entire way—until Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton scored with 13 seconds remaining to give the Bobcats their first bowl victory ever.

The 2012 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl marked the end of an era—the final game of a 13-year association with the WAC, capping the final season of WAC football.  And Utah State, the conference’s final champion, picked up its first postseason victory in 19 years, exploding past Toledo 41-15 with four touchdowns in the final 7½ minutes of the game.  The Aggies’ Kerwynn Williams rushed for 235 yards, a whopping 191 of them in the fourth quarter.

The Mountain West Conference made its debut in the bowl in 2013, with San Diego State running past Buffalo 49-24 behind 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns from Adam Muema.  It was the Aztecs’ first bowl victory outside the San Diego city limits since 1969.  Air Force made it two straight for the Mountain West in 2014 with a 38-24 victory over Western Michigan.  The Broncos, seeking their first bowl win ever, were denied by the Falcons’ relentless ground attack.

In 2015, the MAC struck back.  Veteran coach Terry Bowden, in his fourth season at Akron, led the Zips to their first bowl victory as an FBS school in an exciting 23-21 triumph over Utah State.  Akron finished the season 8-5, its most wins since moving to Division I-A in 1987.  The 2016 game will be remembered for offense and more offense.  In Idaho’s 61-50 win over Colorado State, the Vandals and Rams combined to break or tie 24 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl records as they combined to roll up 1,206 total yards.  The 84 combined second half points were the most in college football bowl history.  All that after a scoreless first quarter.

Josh Allen played his final collegiate game on the blue turf in the 2017 game, going 6-for-7 for 104 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter of Wyoming’s 37-14 win over Central Michigan.  The Cowboys forced a staggering eight Chippewa turnovers to finish the season with 38 takeaways, tops in the FBS.  Allen would go on to become the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills.

In 2018, BYU made its first appearance in the game, and Zach Wilson set a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl record for completion percentage.  Oh really?  The true freshman was 18-for-18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns as the Cougars blew past Western Michigan 49-18.  Wilson had the most completions without a miss in the history of college bowl games.

Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke displayed his dual-threat skills on the way to MVP honors in the 2019 game (played on January 4, 2020).  Rourke rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown and threw for 144 as the Bobcats held off a late charge from Nevada 30-21.  That offset a 402-yard passing performance from Carson Strong of the Wolf Pack.  Strong was back in 2020 to throw for five touchdowns and lead Nevada past Tulane 38-27, but with the Albertsons Stadium stands empty due to COVID-19 protocols, it was up to TV viewers to enjoy it.  The Pack also had two 100-yard rushers, Devonte Lee and Toa Taua.

The 2021 game was a record-setter, with Wyoming outlasting Kent State 52-38.  The Golden Flashes rolled up the most yards of total offense in bowl history with 656, but the Cowboys countered with a record 404 rushing yards.  Kent State executed the longest pass play ever—80 yards from Dustin Crum to Dante Cephas. And Wyoming quarterback Levi Williams ran a record 80 yards for a TD, part of a 200-yard day on the ground that earned him MVP honors.

Today, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is the longest-running cold weather bowl game in college football.  It has hosted 28 different universities and has seen 21 first-round NFL Draft picks come through.  The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is a celebration of the spirit of winter in the beautiful Idaho mountains.  That includes football.  And potatoes.